Mark Gresham | 11 NOV 2020
On Sunday afternoon, at First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta, a number of Atlanta’s best chamber musicians came together once again for a collective concert as they had on June 14 and August 9, performing mostly single movements from classical masterworks in a show that exhibited both variety and excellence, in front of a limited in-person audience and simultaneously live-streamed to a broad audience of listeners on the internet.
This time the roster of musicians expanded to a total of 13. Eight of the musicians who performed in those June and August concerts were back for Sunday’s performance: violinist Helen Hwaya Kim, violist Yinzi Kong, cellists Charae Krueger and Christopher Rex, pianists Julie Coucheron, Elizabeth Pridgen and William Ransom, and organist Jens Korndoerfer. Violinist David Coucheron, who played in the June concert, was unable to return from Norway in time to rehearse and perform in August. Newly added to that cadre of performers for this concert were soprano Masria Valdez, trumpeter Stuart Stephenson, violinist Jessica Wu and cellist Guang Wang.
All of the musicians performed without guarantee of pay, although the public was (and still is) invited to make donations that will then go directly to these musicians. Such collaboration among top-level peers is good for the arts, especially in these uncertain economic times in the continuing pandemic.
The concert got off to a strong start with the fourth movement of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E-flat major, Op. 44, performed by violinists David Coucheron and Helen Kim, violist Yinzi Kong, cellist Charae Krueger, and pianist Julie Coucheron.
Then the Vega Quartet (violinist Jessica Wu, violist Yinzi Kong, cellist Guang Wang, with David Coucheron as guest 1st violinist) performed the final movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11, Op. 95 (“Serioso”) – a piece which they had played in its entirety in their recent concert at the Schwartz Center. In this concert they outdid their previous performance.
A shift of gears from Romantic sentiment to bright Baroque came with the Aria from the church cantata “Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen” (BWV 51) by J.S. Bach – his only church cantata scored for a solo soprano and trumpet. The clear and agile voice of soprano Maria Valdes paired well with the clarion sound of Stuart Stephenson’s trumpet, the two accompanied by strings plus harpsichord – the same strinng players as in the Schumann quintet plus Jens Korndoerfer on harpsichord.
David Coucheron, Christopher Rex, Julie Coucheron returned to the stage to perform a well-known Romantic favorite: the passionately elegant first movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no 1 in D minor, beautifully played.
The original quintet group that opened the concert took the stage again for a chamber transcription of the slow second movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, the piano retaining its soloist status, accompanied by string quartet instead of orchestra. It was time for a slower work to appear after four faster numbers, affording a bit of more relaxed, contemplative listening.
David Coucheron and Helen Kim remained on stage to play the next work: Wieniawski’s Étude-caprice No. 1 (Opus 18, No. 1) – strangely listed only as “duo for two violins” in the program. It’s actually the first of eight such Étude-caprices in the Opus 18 set. Only 3-1/2 minutes long, but it was a true gem and a remarkable highlight of the evening. Now I want to hear Coucheron and Kim play them all in a concert.
There are many versions of Astor Piazzolla’s Oblivion, a dark, smoky tango nuevo that has become a concert favorite. This one was for piano trio, played by Helen Kim, Charae Krueger and Julie Coucheron. It evoked a sense of sense of longing, redolent of a melancholic night in Buenos Aires.
The tempo picked up and the sun shone through the clouds in the only multi-movement work on the program to be played in its entirety, the Trumpet Concerto in D by Italian Baroque composer Giuseppe Torelli. As in the Bach cantata aria, the same group of strings and harpsichord again accompanied. There were only a few moments when the accompanying strings didn’t feel like they were entirely on the money, but it hung together to underscore Stephenson’s solo trumpet.
The first movement of Franz Schubert’s Sonata in A minor for Arpeggione and Piano (D. 821) — the only substantial work of its kind for an “arpeggione” (essentially a bowed guitar) — was played on in a version for viola and piano by Yinzi Kong and William Ransom, one of the two most frequent ways it is heard today, despite the fact that the arpegionne has not yet disappeared into the dustbin of history. It’s just that it’s not a very common instrument.
In a suitably larger and warmer vocal style than in the nimble Bach aria, soprano Maria Valdes sang “Donde lieta uscì” – Mimi’s aria from Puccini’s La Boheme – accompanied by Jens Korndoerfer on organ. Although it was not long, it was met with approval as expressed by the audience in their ovation.
The remainder of the concert trended lighter in emotion, first with a piano four hands arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the flowers.” Duo pianists Julie Coucheron and William Ransom opted to pushed the tempo forward rather than giving it a more laid back and sumptuous approach.
The final work on the program, played by David Coucheron, Helen Kim, Yinzi Kong, Christopher Rex and Julie Coucheron, was the finale of Peter Schikele’s Quintet No. 2 for piano and strings –
a somewhat off-center hoedown that jumps outside of its metrical tracks like a hayride on a bumpy road at night, replete with honest fiddling techniques and a gentle waltz that intervenes partway through, before a rambunctious end.
All in all, this flowering series of cooperative concerts among members of different chamber ensembles, hosted by First Presbyterian Church of Atlanta’s Concerts@First keeps getting better and better. One could hope that once the pandemic has passed that these collaborations, with this kind of approach to programming, will continue to take place in some form or fashion. It would be a good thing for both the art and the community. ■